Genesis 32.22-32

Luke 18.1-8

Stubborn Mercy

Reformation Sunday

The parable Jesus tells at the beginning of Luke 18 has had many names over the years.  I first came to know it as The Parable of the Importunate Widow, “importunate” being a somewhat archaic word for an annoying kind of urgency.  My dictionary also defines importunate as synonymous with “pertinacious,” which can also mean stubborn or obstinate.  More contemporary writers call the parable The Persistent Widow, or, reversing the starring roles, The Parable of the Unjust Judge.  It struck me that there are so many shorthand titles for these spare eight verses, that I decided to dig a little deeper and went to one of my go-to websites for sermon research, The Text This Week, and found the following sermon titles for this passage:  The Relentless Widow, The Power of Persistence, Patient Waiting, Weary Faith, and Piety, Persistence, Penitence & Prayer, which if nothing else certainly has alliteration going for it.  But we get the idea:  this is a parable about persistence, which Calvin Coolidge, as you can see on the back of the morning bulletin, believes is one of the highest goods – he calls it omnipotent, in a rare bit of overstatement for Silent Cal.

Those of you who follow the UCC Daily Devotional may have seen my colleague Quinn Caldwell’s take on this parable last week, and it was kind of fun to read.  It compares the widow’s persistence with that of his nine year old son.  If you don’t mind, I’d like to read Quinn’s comments, because it summarizes the way most people relate to this morning’s gospel story.  Quinn wrote,

The people came to Jesus to ask why their prayers for justice hadn’t been answered.  He told them this parable:  To get what you want, annoy God until she caves.  Wear her down until she gives you what you want just to shut you up.  This is my nine-year-old’s primary strategy for achieving his goals, so I feel for God and the judge in the scenario.  But it’s hard to know what to think about the possibility that God experiences our earnest prayers and regular worship as annoying.  For so long, we’ve been telling ourselves that prayers rise to God like incense, unfurl before her like banners caught in a morning breeze.  What if instead it’s all been just one centuries-long ‘PleeeEEEeeeEEEeeeeaaase?’  What if all this time God’s been muttering through clenched teeth, ‘O my Self, I wish they would just shut up?’  On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to think we might have that kind of influence on God, that there is in fact a thing that will finally move the Unmoved Mover.  Little kids whine because it’s often the only leverage they have; maybe the prayers of us insignificant humans work the same way on the Almighty.  Maybe our prayers are annoying to God; maybe they’re not.  But let’s keep praying, everybody.  I think she’s going to crack any time now.

And this is how a lot of us understand the story Marie told this morning.  The widow keeps annoying and pestering and badgering the judge until he finally relents and gives her what she wants, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he is worn out and ground down by her stubbornness.  And thus the connection is somehow made with prayer.  But what does this say about prayer?  That if we keep asking God the same thing over and over again and again and again God will finally give us what we want?  That prayer is not answered on its own merits, or on whether it is good or right, but only or at least primarily on how many times we ask the same thing?  So if I ask God for a million dollars all I need to do is keep at it day and night until God gets tired of listening to me and makes me a rich man?  Is this what the parable wants us to learn?  Color me skeptical, but sometimes the received wisdom is not very wise.  Yes, I understand this is the long-held traditional interpretation of the parable, but is it correct?  Petition God until God wears down and gives you whatever you want?

Today is Reformation Sunday.  It was 502 years ago this Thursday that Martin Luther tacked 95 theses, or topics for debate with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany.  One of the foundations of the Protestant Reformation is that we are righteous by faith alone, by grace alone, by scripture alone: as Luther phrased it, sola fide, sola Gracie, sola scriptura.  Our Call to Worship this morning is taken from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and provides the biblical framework and foundation for Luther’s theology:  “For it is by grace that we have been saved, through faith - it is not our own doing, so that none of us may boast.”  Well, if salvation is not of our own doing, then what about the heroine of Jesus’ parable who begs and pleads and pesters and insists until she gets her way?  Which is it:   the apostle Paul’s free grace of God or Calvin Coolidge’s omnipotence of persistence and determination?

A number of years ago I read an article in Biblical Preaching Journal by Craig Townsend, at the time serving St James Episcopal Church in New York City.  Townsend noticed a difference in language between the introductory and concluding verses of Jesus’ parable, and the parable itself.  He suggested that the opening and closing verses are like a picture frame that influences the way we view the picture itself.  Sometimes, he said, you need to remove the picture from the frame to understand it.  So let’s read just the parable without the opening and closing verses, let’s remove the picture from the frame, as it were, and see what it might look like standing all by itself:

“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’  For a while he refused; but later he said to himself. ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

There.  Did you notice there is nothing about prayer, persistent or otherwise in this unframed portrait?  Did you hear anything about petitioning God?  The only time God is mentioned is in the unjust judge’s disregard.  What do we make of this?  Is Jesus really comparing God to an unjust judge?  Is this what he wants us to think?  Or that God wants us to whinge and whine until we get our way?  Centuries of history and culture and lazy preaching have combined to convince us that the widow is a desperate humanity and the judge a dilatory God.  But if Paul and Luther and the legacy of the Reformation are correct, if the unmerited grace of God is at the heart of God’s relationship with us rather than obstinacy and our own stick-to-it-iveness, perhaps we have been looking at the picture backwards.  What if we turn the portrait around, and understand the pleading widow as God, and the unjust figure as ourselves?  What then is the parable trying to say to us?

This morning marks the beginning of our church’s Stewardship Season, when you and I consider our material and financial commitment to the work our church does in our community and our world.  We will be asked to continue our obligation to a strong mission and outreach ministry; we will be asked to provide the means to be faithful stewards of our historic building and the many ways both our congregation and our neighbors utilize it; and if I am allowed to say so, we will be asked to show our staff the ways we value the work we do together.  We’ll be hearing and reading more about this in the coming weeks as we consider our level of pledge support for 2020.  The sheet in our bulletin this morning uses the story of the persistent widow as an impetus for stewardship, even though it doesn’t read the story as I suggest it wants to be read.  However it does allude to the power of grace and mercy when it reminds us, “Stewardship begins as we are waylaid by God’s mercy…”  Waylaid by God’s mercy.   I like that phrase, because it appears to capture, perhaps inadvertently, the essence of the gospel story.

And here is the essence, as I read it:  if we reverse roles, if we understand God as the persistent widow and ourselves as the judge, then the story is not about nagging prayer, but rather about God’s incessant efforts to win our hearts.  If we read it this way we find God doing everything divinely possible in the effort to get us to pay attention to the grace and mercy right in front of our eyes, and all those alliterative “P” words we mentioned describe the effort:  God is persistent – God is importunate – God is pertinacious – God is patient – God will keep coming at us with all the urgency and determination of a widow seeking justice.  If we hear the story this way, then we will also hear the free gifts of grace and mercy that are at the heart of the Reformation.  It is not our persistence and our stubbornness and our determination that win the day, “so that none of us may boast,” as Paul says.  Rather, it is God’s initiative and obstinacy, God’s faithful knocking on the Wittenberg door of the human heart until we relent and open up, that brings us into a right relationship with God and one another.  God has not, does not, and will not give up on us. Ever.

A similar image is revealed in the story Jacob and whomever it is Jacob is wrestling in Genesis 32.  Some say it is an angel, some a divine messenger, the text just calls him a man, or perhaps, a mortal.  But the end result is the same.  In their striving with one another through the night, you can almost hear Jacob’s opponent saying, “Will you please hold still so I can bless you?”  It takes him all night, but finally he prevails and bestows the divine blessing on his opponent, and the name Jacob is transformed into Israel, and an entire people is blessed.  God wrestles with us until we recognize the generous and abundant mercy that is the presence of God in our lives.

And so we share that blessing.  In this season of stewardship we share the generous and abundant blessing of God with our church community, with our Chester community, with our global community.  May we be as stubborn and insistent and adamant and pertinacious about opening the hearts and gracing the lives of those around us as God has been, and continues to be, with every one of us.  And may we too, like Jacob and the unjust judge before us, be waylaid by God’s stubborn mercy.

Amen.

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